Constructive Criticism Identity Politics Nuance Political Debate Rhetoric

Political Language: Why Nuance and Rhetoric Matter

High-stakes political and social issues demand passion and a willingness to stand up to powerful interests. This is compatible with nuanced rhetoric.

A common rhetorical technique, originating with the intersectional left but spreading further, is to accuse your opponent of ‘tone policing’. You may be tone policing if you say that you sympathise with someone’s argument or concerns but dislike the way they express it. Attacking this is often understandable. If you are legitimately angered or upset by a serious injustice, such as racism or sexual assault, being told to be more polite or measured will appear to be entirely unhelpful, insensitive, and perhaps outright delegitimising.

Nevertheless, it frequently does matter how you advance a cause, even if there is no disputing it is legitimate. Being right is not enough. Implementing or successfully promoting progress matters too. This typically involves persuading people who do not already agree with you. This is especially true where subjective lived experience is the central, or only, evidence for an issue existing at all.

Political Debate, Rhetoric, Emotional Debate
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton face to face at the second 2016 presidential debate. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Emotion is compatible with rhetoric

This is not to say that there is no place for emotion or expressing an irreducibly personal perspective. Social issues matter because they impact on individuals. It is entirely reasonable to be upset or angered by injustice and it is perfectly legitimate to express this. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with having spaces that are meant for venting, free of judgement and censure.

Anger has a legitimate role in public activism as well. Without expressing passion, it can be hard to ram home exactly why an issue matters to the wider public. Whilst there’s a case that people should have a dispassionate interest in justice, it is also true that empathetic, affective responses are a powerful motive. If you can articulate that prejudice or oppression are harming you by actively expressing or demonstrating that impact, this can play a key role in shifting the opinions of the public and key decision makers.

It does, though, matter how this is framed. Jumping from anger at a system to demonisation of all individuals who benefit from or enable it (however indirectly, unintentionally, or passively) is unwarranted and counter-productive. Labelling anyone and everyone who voted for Donald Trump a bigot is ineffective rhetoric. This is not the same thing as saying that voting for Trump helped normalise bigotry or enabled policies that are racist. Likewise, there is a fundamental difference between arguing that gender disparities in positions of power makes it easier for a Harvey Weinstein to exist and suggesting that all men are automatically complicit in or should feel guilt for sexual abuse committed (and, yes, enabled) by others.

Jumping from anger at a system to demonisation of all individuals who benefit from or enable it (however indirectly, unintentionally, or passively) is unwarranted and counter-productive

The importance of definitions

It matters that political language is defined and employed carefully. There is a difference between someone doing or saying something racist and someone being a racist. The latter concerns someone’s character, the former a specific action. Saying something racist without intent is simply not as blameworthy as consciously holding racist beliefs. It matters that you can tell someone who is not hateful or consciously prejudiced that a specific aspect of their behaviour is harmful without alienating them. They might just learn something.

There is a difference between someone doing or saying something racist and someone being a racist.

Similarly, the discourse around ‘privilege’ is often counterproductive. The classic example is that you won’t get very far by telling a homeless white man that he still has his white male privilege. This is not to say that structural racism and sexism do not exist. Rather it is a point about how we should understand and discuss those injustices. The very term ‘privilege’ gets the entire issue back to front and inevitably leads to absurdity.

The problem is not that white heterosexual men have too many advantages. The problem is that minorities and women have too few. The fact that whites are less likely to be shot by the police or arrested for owning a plant is not a privilege. Rather, the fact that black people are habitually harassed by, and are at genuine risk from, law enforcement is simply a gross violation of human rights and dignity. Justice is not a zero-sum game.

Protest, Emotional Debate, Rhetoric, Black Lives Matter
Protesters take part in a Black Lives Matter rally at the federal courthouse, Saturday, April 15, 2017, in downtown Seattle. The movement has ignited a debate around race relations in America. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The difference between constructive criticism and derailing

This does not mean that Black Lives Matter should be substituted for All Lives Matter or that you should be an egalitarian rather than a feminist. Where groups are disadvantaged in specific ways because of their identity it is necessary to address that in a way that’s context sensitive. Nevertheless, talking about ‘privilege’ creates very real problems by allowing concerns about absolute suffering and oppression to look like worries about relative advantage. Sexual assault is not repugnant because men are more likely to commit it and women are more likely to be victims. It is repugnant because no one should have to experience it. The grotesque and ridiculous War on Drugs would still be evil if it was enforced without racism. Not having your rights violated is a right not a privilege.

Correctly identifying the existence of an injustice is also insufficient. An accurate analysis of why it is happening, and what needs to be done to address it, matters. For instance, if there is a lifetime earnings gap between men and women, it does not mean that discrimination is the primary reason behind it (at least at a systemic level). The likely primary reason for any discrepancy is lifestyle choices (particularly regarding raising children). That does not automatically mean it is not a problem or due to ‘biology’. There is a good feminist argument that such lifestyle choices are the product of objectionable gendered pressures, expectations, and upbringing. Nevertheless, simply because this is a ‘feminist issue’ it does not mean that a woman who claims that, contrary to the evidence, her specific understanding of the issue is necessarily right and that any man who contradicts that is ‘mansplaining’.

Subtlety, nuance and communication should never be disregarded

Both the full context of, and the solutions to, political issues are usually complex, multifaceted, and non-obvious. This is not to say that those who are most affected or victimised shouldn’t be at the forefront of identifying and addressing said problems. However, an understanding of there being an injustice is different from understanding its causes or how to solve it. There is obvious value in agency and preventing a cause from being hijacked or derailed. That does not mean that any and every constructive criticism should be dismissed as capitulation, hand wringing, or in bad faith.

Blogger, activist and former philosophy student at The University of Edinburgh

Article Discussion

  • Posted by e lee

    7 December, 2017 at 2:56 pm

    Huge applause for this thoughtful and balanced article.

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